The Sum of All Brexit Fears

December 29, 2018

The Sum of All Brexit Fears

The Leavers lied: The costs of withdrawing from the European Union were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.


LONDON – Day after day, week after week, most British citizens think that the turmoil over their country’s proposed exit from the European Union cannot get any worse. But, without fail, it does. Turmoil turns into humiliating chaos; a political crisis threatens to become a constitutional crisis.

Meanwhile, the date of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU gets closer. It is fewer than 100 days until the UK leaves, and at the moment there is no deal in sight that is acceptable to both Parliament in Westminster and the European Commission and European Council in Brussels.

The problem began with the 2016 referendum vote to leave. Unfortunately, despite plotting and planning for this outcome for years, Leavers had no idea what quitting the EU would actually entail. Their campaign was rife with delusions and dishonesty. Leaving, they said, would mean a financial bonanza, which the UK would inject into its National Health Service. Negotiating a trade deal with the EU after departure would be easy. Other countries around the world would queue up to make deals with Britain. All lies.

The Brexit talks themselves, when they finally began, were hampered by the incompetence of the ministers put in charge. The UK’s negotiators were long on ideological certainty and short on workable solutions.

Moreover, the red lines that Prime Minister Theresa May laid down at the very beginning made their work more difficult. We must not only leave the EU, she argued, but also the single market and the customs union. We could not accept any jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice. We must be able to end the freedom of European citizens to come to the UK to staff our hospitals, pick our crops, fill gaps in our professional services, and increase our prosperity.

One of the central problems to emerge from this mish-mash of nonsense was how to avoid re-establishing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the UK stayed within May’s red lines. Such a border would (as the head of Northern Ireland police noted) jeopardize the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of violence.

Recent negotiations have stalled on this point, because a successful outcome must square a circle. Britain has already accepted that Northern Ireland will have to stay in the customs union until the UK has concluded a long-term trade deal with the EU. Until then, there will have to be an insurance policy – a “backstop” – against possible failure. But hard-liners within May’s Conservative Party, and Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland, on whom May depends for her parliamentary majority, will accept only a backstop with a time limit, which is no real “stop” at all.

At the root of May’s difficulties is a simple truth that she and others are unwilling to accept. It is well-nigh impossible to negotiate an exit deal that is both in the national interest and acceptable to the right-wing English nationalists in her party. This became crystal clear during a grim week for the government earlier this month.

After May and her advisers concluded that the exit deal she had negotiated with the EU would be defeated in Parliament by a large majority, they suspended the debate before voting took place. May then announced that she was going to talk to other EU presidents and prime ministers to get the sort of reassurances that might satisfy her right-wing critics.

Those critics have operated increasingly like a party within a party. Halfway through May’s frantic diplomatic safari, they announced that they had gathered enough support to trigger a vote of no confidence in her leadership of the Conservative Party. She won the vote with about two-thirds support, but with her authority badly dented.

Capping an awful week, European ministers made clear that they were not prepared to reopen the agreement with Britain to renegotiation. They could offer “best endeavours” and “good will,” but no more.

So what happens next? May’s supporters think she is determined; others reckon she is simply obstinate and blind to reason. She has continued to put off any debate on her own proposals. Critics say she is trying to push any vote as close to the exit date as possible, in order to pressure MPs to support her plan. “Back my plan or face the disaster of no deal,” she seems to be saying. “Support me or we’ll jump off the cliff.”

But pressure is building for Parliament to take control of the process and work through a more acceptable range of options. Is there a majority in favor of May’s deal? Is Parliament totally opposed to crashing out of Europe with no deal? Should we seek a Norway-style relationship with Europe and aim to stay in both the single market and the customs union, at the cost of continuing to accept free movement of workers? Should we try to postpone the date of our EU departure until we have sorted out what exactly we want? Should there be another referendum, passing the final decision back to the people?

A fog of political uncertainty hangs over Britain after Christmas. Only four things seem clear. First, the Conservative Party will have growing difficulty accommodating its fanatical English nationalist wing. Second, to save the UK from disaster, Parliament will have to get a grip on the process. Third, life outside the EU will, in any case, leave Britain poorer and less influential in the world. And, lastly, whatever the outcome, Brexit will be a divisive issue for years to come.

The Brexiteers lied. The costs of leaving the EU were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

The End of Global Britain

July 5, 2018

The End of Global Britain

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In the two years since the Brexit referendum, the United Kingdom’s global influence has been significantly diminished. A country that once punched above its weight in international affairs now only punches down, and Brexiteers’ aspiration to lead the vast “Anglosphere” into a brave new world has become a comical delusion.

by Mark Malloch-Brown


LONDON – Nowadays, Britain’s words and actions on the world stage are so at odds with its values that one must wonder what has happened to the country. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, British foreign policy seems to have all but collapsed – and even to have disowned its past and its governing ideas.

Worse, this has coincided with the emergence of US President Donald Trump’s erratic administration, which is pursuing goals that are completely detached from those of Britain – and of Europe generally. Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, combined with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasing belligerence and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s growing ambitions, indicates that the world is entering an ever-more confrontational and dangerous phase.

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Trump’s evident lack of personal chemistry with British Prime Minister Theresa May – and the Anglophobia of his new national security adviser, John Bolton – ensured that this was never going to be the best of times for the United Kingdom. But it also doesn’t help that generations of British foreign-policy hands have regarded themselves as ancient Greeks to America’s Rome. To a Brit like myself, this analogy always seemed too confident. Having lived in America, I suspected that US leaders did not heed the advice of British diplomats nearly as much as those diplomats liked to think.

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Still, if ever there was a moment for Britain to sprinkle some of its characteristic calm and resolve over world affairs, that moment is now. And yet, the UK appears to have checked out. Since World War II, Britain’s close relationships with continental Europe and the US have served as the two anchors of its foreign policy. But now, both lines have essentially been severed.

At the same time, the British government’s all-consuming preoccupation with untying the Gordian knot of Brexit has blinded it to what is happening in the rest of the world. And its blinkered view seems certain to persist. Negotiating the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is likely to take years, and the outcome will inevitably have implications for the country’s unity, given the intractable issue of the Northern Irish border. Even if that issue can be sorted out, a campaign in Scotland to link it to the EU rather than to London will continue to command the attention of the government and civil service for the foreseeable future.

At any rate, the promise of a “global Britain” freed from the chains of the EU was never more than idle talk and sloganeering. At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, business and political leaders from Commonwealth countries around the world heard plenty of Brexiteer bluster, but little concrete talk of future trade deals.

A country like India could potentially be a major UK trade partner after Brexit. The problem is that Indians see Britain and Europe as one market. To them, Britain’s quest to adopt its own rules and standards amounts to a frivolous inconvenience. Before expanding trade and investment with Britain, India will most likely pursue a deeper relationship with the EU. Indeed, India never saw Britain as a particular champion of its interests inside the EU.

The collapse of British foreign policy has come at a time of deepening uncertainty. The global re-balancing between the US and China is a generational challenge that will outlast Trump and even Xi, who is now unbound by term limits. In an increasingly off-kilter world, the duty will fall to Europe to serve as ballast. But a Europe without Britain’s traditional leadership, judgment, and diplomacy will be a lesser Europe. And Britain, by its own hand, risks being reduced to a footnote.–

Likewise, most of those outside of the “Leave” camp regard the Brexiteers’ aspiration for Britain to lead the vast “Anglosphere” into a brave new world as a comical delusion. To be sure, the show of US and European support after the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England, might suggest that Britain is still punching above its weight. The coordinated expulsion of Russian spies from the EU and the United States was a victory for British diplomacy; and suspicions that the Russians were exploiting Britain’s increasing isolation seem to have mobilized NATO. But the larger truth is that the Russians are right: Britain is now Western Europe’s weak link.

Thus, it is only a matter of time before Russian President Vladimir Putin probes British weakness again. And, as if the old sin of turning a blind eye to Russian oligarchs laundering money through the UK were not problematic enough, the suicidal act of quitting the EU leaves Britain with fewer tools to combat Russian meddling in its affairs. Britain is losing its influence over EU cybersecurity and energy policies just as cyber warfare and energy geopolitics are becoming key fronts for hostile state and non-state actors.

Worse, at the same time that Britain is giving up its seat at the EU table, it also seems to be giving up its liberal-democratic values. During the Brexit referendum campaign, the Leave camp openly stoked hostility toward outsiders. And the recent “Windrush” scandal over the government’s poor treatment of Caribbean-born legal residents has reprised the illiberal legacy of May’s previous tenure at the Home Office.

But equally insidious has been the government’s embrace of “Britain First” mercantilism, under which arms sales to Saudi Arabia are not a matter for caution, but rather an opportunity for profit. When the UK joins the Trump administration in putting trade and investment before human rights and good governance, it is journalists, opposition politicians, and human-rights activists around the world who bear the costs. By retreating from liberal norms, the May government has become, like the Trump administration, an enabler of authoritarian behaviors around the world.

The collapse of British foreign policy has come at a time of deepening uncertainty. The global re-balancing between the US and China is a generational challenge that will outlast Trump and even Xi, who is now unbound by term limits. In an increasingly off-kilter world, the duty will fall to Europe to serve as ballast. But a Europe without Britain’s traditional leadership, judgment, and diplomacy will be a lesser Europe. And Britain, by its own hand, risks being reduced to a footnote.


“Global Britain” Is Already on Its Own

March 25, 2018

“Global Britain” Is Already on Its Own

by Mark Malloch-Brown

British voters’ decision to leave the EU may have been motivated mostly by domestic issues such as political dysfunction and immigration, but the costs of departure are being felt first on the foreign-policy front. The international response to the recent nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, suggests that the costs will be high.

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LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May has finally had a good crisis. Responding to the nerve-agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the placid market town of Salisbury, England, May projected strength – including to her fellow European leaders – by demanding that the Kremlin answer for the crime. As a former home secretary, security is clearly her strong suit, and she has now gone a long way toward repairing her tattered authority in Parliament.

Moreover, May also managed to reach an agreement with European Union negotiators on a 21-month transition period for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the bloc. And yet, despite May’s personal successes, this week might well be remembered as the moment when the foreign-policy costs of Brexit became clear.

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Until now, the British foreign-policy grandees and former ambassadors warning that Brexit will severely damage the UK’s standing in the world have been dismissed by much of the public as discredited elites and fear-mongers. Understandably, Brexit supporters have taken little notice of various straws in the wind heralding the direction their country will take. They are unmoved, for example, by the fact that, after losing a United Nations vote, their candidate pulled out of the race and the UK now has no judges seated at the International Court of Justice for the first time in 71 years.

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The Cranky Boris Johnson with The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Still, if that wasn’t enough to reveal Britain’s new loneliness, the use of a Soviet-era nerve agent on British soil certainly is. Though EU members have expressed their support for Britain and made assurances that Brexit will not disrupt solidarity or security, there are signs that this united front may, in fact, be just a front. The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his election to a fourth term – a move that rankled the UK. Greece and others also expressed some skepticism about the relationship with the UK as they arrived in Brussels for the European Council summit.

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Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump also congratulated Putin. While he also condemned Russia for the Salisbury incident – a rare departure from the Putin-loving corner he has painted himself into – support for Britain on this occasion seems to have been motivated more by his political calculus than a deep sense of solidarity. After several days of deafening silence, Trump was under growing pressure to speak out. And on the whole, his unpredictability and transactional approach to alliances has already called into question Britain’s most important relationship outside Europe.

Beneath the surface, the international response to the Salisbury attack reveals alarming cracks in the UK’s position on the world stage. It is widely assumed that the UK’s weak response to similar incidents, not least the 2006 murder of the Russian defector and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, has convinced Putin that he can get away with such provocations. But Putin may also have anticipated the public outrage over the attack on the Skripals and calculated that EU member states with pro-Russian governments – namely, Hungary, Greece, and, soon, Italy – would veto any strong EU response. By this reasoning, Putin could drive an even larger wedge between Britain and Europe, thus advancing his longstanding goal of undermining European solidarity.

In any case, the UK’s isolation and vulnerability are now abundantly obvious. In its efforts to apply pressure on Europe, the Kremlin has identified Britain as a weak link. And those efforts go well beyond attempted murder on British territory. It seems increasingly likely that Russia also interfered in the Brexit referendum, as it did in the 2016 US election; and that Russian criminal elements have penetrated London’s financial and services sectors.

Britain is a beachhead in Russia’s strategy to undermine European security. Unfortunately, the territorial defense guarantee that comes with NATO membership does little good in a conflict conducted in the shadows through assassinations, cyber warfare, and criminal subterfuge. Nor does NATO membership help in responding to the Kremlin’s exploitation of European dependence on Russian energy, such as when it uses natural-gas supplies as a geopolitical weapon.

The decision by a slim majority of UK voters to leave the EU may have been motivated mostly by domestic issues such as political dysfunction and immigration, but the Skripal episode has made it clear that the costs of departure will be felt first on the foreign-policy front. The rest of Europe will sink or swim together in confronting Russian aggression. But the UK, having singled itself out, is a prime target for a dunking.

In recent years, Russian officials had already become increasingly derisive toward Britain’s presumptions about its international status and power. Like many observers around the world since the Brexit vote, the Kremlin does not look at the UK and see a country able to wield anything approaching global influence. Rather, it sees a country mired in nostalgia – easy pickings for destabilization.

In a sense, “Leave” voters were right that the EU is out of touch with the times, but not for the reasons they thought. One can debate whether the EU is a stale champion of the rules-based liberal international order. But what is now clear is that it is not ready for the emerging post-liberal order.

In the new order, strong states will throw their weight around with little care for the rules-based system that the EU has long epitomized. But at least the EU will have numbers on its side. Putin’s Russia will be just the start of post-Brexit Britain’s worries. The UK will also have to contend with China, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even its most important ally – the US.

Just as Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the consensus-based multilateralism of the post-war era is being supplanted by muscular nationalism. In this new schoolyard, only those with committed friends will be able to stand up to the bullies. Others will have no other choice than to cower and hope for the best.

Rex Tillerson Fired

March 14, 2018

Rex Tillerson Fired

by John Cassidy

In the unique and alarming context of the Trump Administration, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence.

In the unique and alarming context of the Trump Administration, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence.

On Monday, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, cut short a visit to East Africa to fly back to Washington. Before he left, he remarked that the nerve-gas attack recently carried out on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England, was a “really egregious act,” but he also said it wasn’t entirely clear who was responsible. Later on Monday, though, the State Department issued a statement in which Tillerson expressed his “full confidence” in the British government’s assessment that the Russian state was almost certainly the culprit. (In the House of Commons on Monday, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible.)

“There is never a justification for this type of attack—the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation—and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior,” Tillerson’s statement said. “From Ukraine to Syria—and now the UK—Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens. We agree that those responsible—both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it—must face appropriately serious consequences. We stand in solidarity with our Allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”

This was arguably the strongest condemnation of Russian behavior that the Trump Administration has ever issued. And it turned out to be one of Tillerson’s final official acts as Secretary of State. At 8:44 A.M. on Tuesday, Donald Trump announced Tillerson’s firing on Twitter. “Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State,” Trump wrote. “He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”

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President Donald Trump and Mr. Mike Pompeo

Some of Trump’s aides immediately insisted to reporters that the President hadn’t dismissed Tillerson because of the Russia statement. Citing multiple White House officials, the Washington Post reported that the White House informed the Secretary of State on Friday that he was going to be ousted. Zeke Miller, of the Associated Press, subsequently filled out this narrative, reporting via Twitter, “WH official says chief of staff John Kelly called Tillerson Friday and again on Saturday. Both calls to Tillerson, the official says, warned that Trump was about to take imminent action if he did not step aside. When Tillerson didn’t act, Trump fired him.” In brief remarks to reporters, Trump said he had been thinking about replacing Tillerson for “a long time,” because “We were not thinking the same.” He also said Tillerson “will be much happier now.”

At least one of Tillerson’s aides pushed back against this White House narrative, however. Elise Labott, CNN’s global-affairs correspondent, reported that Tillerson only found out from Trump’s tweet that he was fired. Josh Lederman, of the A.P., reported, via Twitter, “We got off the plane with Tillerson less than four hours ago. There was zero indication on flight home that this was imminent.” The White House reacted quickly to this counter-narrative. By early afternoon, the White House had fired the aide, Steve Goldstein, who contradicted its version of what had happened.

If Tillerson did know that the President was about to can him, his statement on Russia was perhaps a final act of defiance. On Tuesday, the Russian government again denied responsibility for the attack in Salisbury and said it wouldn’t respond to British claims unless it was provided with samples of the nerve agent used. Trump also spoke with May, finally, and, after the call, the White House issued a statement saying he agreed with her “that the Government of the Russian Federation must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom.” However, the statement stopped short of saying Trump agreed with the British assessment that the Russian government was very likely responsible.

It is certainly true that Tillerson’s departure wasn’t entirely unexpected. Although he has avoided criticizing Trump publicly, behind the scenes the former ExxonMobil C.E.O. hasn’t hidden his contempt for the President. Last summer, after Trump gave a wacko speech to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson used to lead, Tillerson reportedly came close to resigning. In October, NBC News reported that after a meeting at which Trump called for a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Tillerson referred to him as a “moron” in a conversation with other officials. One of the NBC reporters would clarify that Tillerson used the term “fucking moron.”

After those revelations, which Tillerson didn’t explicitly deny, there were frequent suggestions that Trump was considering replacing him with Pompeo, a former Republican congressman. Despite this acrimony, the fact remains that Trump announced Tillerson’s firing barely twelve hours after he had forcefully sided with the British government against the Kremlin. Either Trump decided that Tillerson’s show of defiance was the last straw, or he was oblivious (or indifferent) to the impression that firing him at this juncture would create.

To be sure, there were policy differences between Trump and Tillerson—many of them. In addition to the Iranian nuclear deal, where Tillerson was more supportive than the President, trade and North Korea come to mind immediately. Last week, Tillerson reportedly warned White House officials that Trump’s proposal to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports would endanger U.S. national security. On Thursday, just hours before Trump agreed to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Tillerson told the reporters traveling with him in Africa, “We’re a long way from negotiations.”

Maybe that’s why Trump decided to act now, although it wouldn’t explain why he waited five days and then made the announcement on Twitter. It’s also possible that another factor played into his timing. Early Tuesday morning, the Washington Post reported that Roger Stone, the Republican dirty trickster and longtime Trump adviser, told an associate in the spring of 2016 that “he had learned from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that his organization had obtained emails that would torment senior Democrats such as John Podesta, then campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.” This conversation took place “before it was publicly known that hackers had obtained the emails of Podesta and of the Democratic National Committee,” the story also noted.

As Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff, told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, Trump pays a great deal of attention to how the daily news narrative evolves. After the Post’s scoop appeared, other news organizations leapt on it, and Stone’s name trended on Twitter. In all likelihood, the Post’s story, with its implication of possible collusion, would have dominated the day in cable news. But once the news of Tillerson’s firing broke, it slipped down the home pages, and Stone dropped off the trending list.

Whatever really happened, the fact is that Tillerson is gone—the first Cabinet secretary ever to be fired by tweet. Given his effort to gut the State Department, and the departure of many senior diplomats with distinguished careers in the department, Tillerson’s fall likely won’t be lamented in Foggy Bottom, or in many other places. But in the unique and alarming context of this Presidency, he seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence. At least, he wasn’t a Trump flunky or a Bannonite ethno-nationalist.

With Tillerson’s departure so closely following the resignation of Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive who served as Trump’s senior economic adviser, the circle around the President is getting even tighter. Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, is a Trump loyalist who has tried to downplay Russian interference in the 2016 election. And so it goes on.

John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for

The Uncertainty of Multipolarity

January 26, 2018

The Uncertainty of Multipolarity

by Bunn

ONE phrase captures the complex and often baffling world of international relations today: a shift towards multipolarity.

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This growing reality is experienced more than it is understood or even commonly perceived. The familiar notion of much in global geopolitics revolving around the US as major pole has stuck.

This is partly because old habits die hard. People everywhere have grown accustomed to the US as leading superpower, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as sole superpower.

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The US global position remains unassailable: despite the hype, China is not yet able to compete for the global superpower stakes and is not doing so. A rising China is now focused only on regional big power status.

A real sense of competition may take hold if the US perceives China as a clear rival and acts accordingly. This would force a largely reactive China to define its own geopolitical space and thus be seen as defending or competing for it.

While much in the US or Western narrative still relates to fundamental changes in today’s world, too much is attributed to it. Many changes now lie outside its scope or tend to move away from it that in itself being a sign of growing multipolarity.

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A sign and a result of China’s rise is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Factors that prompted the AIIB included China’s marginalisation by major Western-led financial institutions the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank, despite China’s growing economic strength.

An obvious funding project for the AIIB is China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), although Beijing played down the connection initially. The bipartisan response from a Washington that saw China as a competitor was to snub or spurn them, even quietly pressing allies to do likewise.

However, before many countries could decide on their own response, closest US ally Britain announced its support for both. That triggered more Western countries to do the same.

Britain’s move is not surprising in historical context, despite the question marks it placed on the US-UK special relationship. For centuries Britain regarded itself as first among equals in the West, if not better, in forging profitable global relationships.

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The British Empire had bested all other European equivalents, holding sway long before any unique relationship with the Americans. But while London’s relationship with Asia then was one between colonial master and subordinate, today it is between partners.

Such adjustments can be tricky or elusive. For decades Australia, as another US ally, struggled and still struggles, with geopolitical changes that shift its centre of gravity from the West towards Asia.

Granted much of this shift is only economic, but economics defines much in the modern world. Since geography still matters, being located nearer to Asia than Europe or North America now limits Australia’s options.

To be at the “arse-end of the world”, as two of its Prime Ministers have put it, means Australia all the more needs to reconcile with its regional realities. But while its 2003 Foreign Affairs White Paper acknowledged China’s rise and the 2012 White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century embraced these trends, last November’s update longed for an Australia more closely tied to the West.

Other regions such as North-East Asia have been more realistic and forward-looking. Events there have also testified to change in the direction of multipolarity.

The Obama years had alienated both China and Russia, making them natural allies over a range of issues. This coincided with the re-emergence of both countries that are also among the five supposedly promising economies of BRICS, together with Brazil, India and South Africa.

The West’s snub of Russia leaned in favour of China and Russia’s subordination to Beijing, given China’s larger economy and vast schemes like BRI. Soon China’s prospect was seen to overshadow Russia’s role in Central Asia and Eurasia such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Meanwhile frosty Japan-Russia ties were a given, particularly with Japan’s status as a US ally and its dispute with Russia over the South Kurile Islands (Northern Territories). But Tokyo and Moscow are set for a change.

Among the prizes at stake are Russia’s oil and gas deposits in its Far East region sought by both Japan and China. This competition works in favour of Russia as energy supplier.

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With close China-Russia ties resulting unwittingly from US policies, Moscow now needed to reboot its relations with Tokyo. As projects like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline have shown, even costs are secondary to geopolitics as a consideration.

To Japan, it could only gain if Russia became a partner or if Russia-China ties loosened, preferably both. Japan is particularly spooked by a sense of growing military cooperation between China and Russia, and their common interests in North Korea.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia twice in 2016 to discuss energy and technology with President Vladimir Putin, who returned a visit in December. For years now Abe is seen to be the weaker of the two, so he hedged his bets by acknowledging the prospect of more cooperation with China.

Nonetheless Japan has the technology Russia seeks, and Russia has energy supplies Japan wants. Russia is also courting Japanese investment for its underdeveloped Far East.

Abe gave his Trade Ministry the added responsibility of developing economic ties with Russia, challenging Western-led sanctions against Moscow. For Japan the stakes would seem to be higher.

Visits and meetings between Japanese and Russian leaders continued throughout last year, with Japan as virtual supplicant. Russia did not budge in giving in to Japanese hopes of retrieving four disputed Kurile islands.

Instead, Russia proposed constructing a bridge between Sakhalin and Hokkaido, both as a symbol of peace and as practical infrastructure between both countries. Without the kind of progress in relations Japan has been yearning for, Abe plans to visit Russia twice this year and to invite Putin to Japan next year.

The two leaders will also meet on the sidelines of other summits elsewhere during this time, regardless of their bilateral limitations. Thus the much-presumed pact between Russia and China is not set in stone.

Neither is any prospect of a substantive Russia-Japan partnership. If indeed Russia is wary of a rising China, it is also wary of Japan’s firm alliance with the US.

Although President Donald Trump is supposed to be Russia-friendly, he is under continuing pressure from the same US Establishment keen on preserving the alliance with Japan and wary of both China and Russia.

Meanwhile Britain continues to build a cosy relationship with China unfazed, as Finance Minister Philip Hammond talked up mutual relations in Beijing last month.

Post-Brexit, successive Conservative and Labour governments are consistent in looking East despite the reservations of pundits at home.

And just in case China may seem to have things too easy, even its prized BRI project has already encountered problems with none other than staunch ally Pakistan.

Work on the Diamer-Bhasha hydroelectric dam is suspended over sovereignty issues while talks on railway and airport projects have stalled. Bumps in the road and knots in the belt have also surfaced in Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand.

All told, the other thing about multipolarity is its uncertainty.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

A Very British Row: May versus Trump

December 3, 2017

Presidential tweeting

A Very British row

Donald Trump’s rebuke to Theresa May was not just another tweet

Print edition | United States

EARLY morning fusillades of gibberish are nothing new in the Trump presidency. Nor is a tendency to attack allies, or to give encouragement to racist groups. On November 29th, though, the President achieved a rare triple. On waking he seems to have grabbed his phone to attack CNN, give air to an old conspiracy theory and broadcast propaganda from a hitherto obscure band of British xenophobes to his 43.6m Twitter followers. Later in the day he had a go at Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, whose office had earlier criticised him for thinking with his thumb. One sound strategy for staying sane in 2017 has been to ignore Mr Trump’s tweets. Yet this morning barrage revealed traits that go to the core of the man in the Oval Office.

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One is an astonishing lack of curiosity about where information comes from. Britain First, whose nonsense the President retweeted, was until this week at the fringe of the fringe of far-right English politics. Its members are a hapless bunch, too boneheaded to conceal their animus against brown people. The group’s leader, Paul Golding, was expelled from the slightly more mainstream British National Party (BNP), which itself is marginal (it gained more than 1% of the vote in only three of Britain’s 650 parliamentary constituencies in the general election earlier this year). Mr Golding was deemed too racist for the BNP when he picked a fight with its only non-white council member. Mr Golding has a taste for actual fights, too: he has admitted a charge of assault. As hardly anyone in Britain had heard of Britain First, neither presumably had Mr Trump. But the group sounded like America First, which must have been flattering and therefore good. And it seemed to share Mr Trump’s views on Muslims, which was good, too. That was all the information the President needed before giving his endorsement.

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A Special but Unequal Relationship as Trump browbeats Theresa May on Twitter.

A second characteristic is a thin skin. Despite the power of his office, Mr Trump often feels picked-upon. When Mrs May’s staff rebuked him for the Britain First stuff, he could not resist: “Theresa, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!” When Mr Trump was rebuked for criticising London’s (Muslim) mayor after a lethal terrorist attack, his tweets on the subject became more frenzied. Mr Trump felt similarly aggrieved when he was denounced for his equivocal response to a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville (“many sides” were to blame).

Mrs May, whose government badly wants a trade deal with America after Britain leaves the European Union, was taking a calculated risk. Most foreign leaders have already worked out that the president responds well to big parades and badly to well-intentioned criticism. In Mrs May’s case, though, the rebuke was worth it. Mr Trump has, amazingly, managed to unite MPs who can agree on little else right now, as well as to promote interfaith dialogue. Prominent British Muslims were joined in condemnation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has previously said he thinks Mr Trump is a racist. After his election win last year, discussions about a state visit to Britain began. One sticking point was that Mr Trump wished the occasion to be optimised for pomp: gilded horse-drawn carriages and all. It was thought more prudent, if he came, to helicopter him in to the queen’s garden, avoiding crowds of protesters. If the state visit happened tomorrow, there might be a riot.

The good news, for transatlantic relations at least, is that Mr Trump’s tendency to go after steadfast allies can be put right, with a little stroking. Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, was an early victim, but America’s policy towards it has barely changed. British Prime Ministers are obsequiously paranoid about maintaining what they see as the special relationship with America’s presidents. Moreover, the foundation of the relationship is shared intelligence and diplomacy, which is relatively tweet-resistant. In fact, for Mrs May, who is trying to negotiate the world’s most complicated divorce while hampered by unpopularity and a self-sabotaging cabinet, a spat with Mr Trump could be just what she needs.